Nina Simone’s life story as jazz singer and civil rights activist charted in Black Is The Color Of My Voice at Scarborough’s SJT

Florence Odumosu as Nina Simone in Apphia Campbell’s play Black Is The Color Of My Voice

BLACK Is The Color Of My Voice, writer-director Apphia Campbell’s play Inspired by the life of Nina Simone, plays Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on March 12.

After sell-out seasons in Shanghai, New York, Edinburgh and London’s West End, Seabright Productions’ national tour will take in further Yorkshire performances at the Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax, on March 8 and the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, on March 16, all three starting at 7.30pm.

Florence Odumosu will play the North Carolina-born jazz singer and civil rights activist in Campbell’s story of Simone seeking redemption after the untimely death of her father. 

Simone reflects on the journey that took her from a young piano prodigy, destined for a life in the service of the church, to a renowned jazz vocalist and pianist at the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Campbell, the IASH playwrighting fellow for 2021, is originally from the United States, where she graduated from Florida International University with a BFA in theatre performance.

She wrote Black Is The Color Of My Voice in 2013. In 2017, her show with Meredith Yarbrough, Woke, was presented as part of the Made In Scotland Showcase, where it won a Scotsman Fringe First.

In 2019, she made her West End debut with Black Is The Color Of My Voice at Trafalgar Studios and had a London premiere of Woke at Battersea Arts Centre.

In 2020, her first commission for the BBC, the children’s story Zachary The Zebroid, was aired; she wrote Birdie’s Dilemma for Scenes For Survival (BBC in collaboration with NTS Scotland), and she was among the six writers for the National Theatre of Scotland’s Christmas show, Rapunzel.

Black Is The Color Of My Voice is recommended for age 12 upwards. Scarborough box office: 01723 370 541 or at sjtg.uk.com; Halifax, 01422 349422 or squarechapel.co.uk; Huddersfield, 01484 430528 or thelbt.org.

Ain’t nothing like their dames? Now Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard team up as lovably hateful stepsisters in Cinderella

All revved up to read the riot act: Robin Simpson’s Manky, left, and Paul Hawkyard’s Mardy know how to make an entrance in Cinderella at York Theatre Royal

DIRECTOR Juliet Forster first noted Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s stage chemistry when they played two of the Rude Mechanicals in her Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in York in July 2018.

Now York Theatre Royal’s creative director has cast them us unruly stepsisters Manky and Mardy in Cinderella.

Both have dame roles in their panto locker, Robin last year donning the frocks for the Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime, having appeared in the Lawrence Batley Theatre panto in Huddersfield in the past few years.

“I was never under contract though; it was always just a case of them giving me a call early in the year, so it was a very free and easy arrangement,” he says.

Last Christmas, the Huddersfield panto was cancelled, and so Robin was able to continue an association with York Theatre Royal that began with The Little Mermaid in 2005 by appearing in Juliet and Evolution Productions’ writer-producer Paul Hendy’s first collaboration, the Travelling Pantomime. 

Robin Simpson in York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime last winter

“It was a lovely script and such a lovely show to do, when we were all so happy to be in that situation of being able to perform when so many places were in Tier 3, but there we were in Tier 2, taking every day as a blessing, testing every other day, but still worrying that it would be shut down or that someone would test positive,” he says.

“We were always living on a knife edge, but we got through most of the run and we had such a blast because people were delighted they could see a show again and were so happy to see their children enjoying themselves.”

Lawrence Batley Theatre’s creative team changed with a new chief exec coming in; likewise, York Theatre Royal was looking to move on from Berwick Kaler’s 40-year damehood.  

“Both theatres were starting afresh, and with me facing a choice, I thought it would be a good time for me to move on, as they could start with a clean slate at Huddersfield, and performing in York always feels like coming home,” says Robin, who lives in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield.

“York Theare Royal is such a wonderful theatre and I’ve done so many shows on that stage. I think York is the city I’ve worked in the most, playing at the National Railway Museum and Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre as well.”

Paul Hawkyard, standing somewhat taller and wider than Robin at 6ft 2, was born and raised in Leeds, and, as chance would have had it, he had just moved back to Yorkshire after many years of living down south when the opportunity to appear alongside him in Cinderella came about.

Paul Hawkyard as Bottom in Juliet Forster’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre in York in 2019

“We’d loved being in the Scottish play [Macbeth] and A Midsummer Night’s Dream together in 2018,” he recalls. “Robin played the Wall in ‘the Wall Play’, I played Bottom, and we’d bring the show to a stop on numerous occasions, getting told to stop doing that!

“We were neighbours in the dressing room and got on so well, putting the world to rights, waiting for our cues, scrambling to the stage, so it’s lovely to be doing this show together.”

Actor and wildlife artist Paul has shed four stones since first playing Bottom. “I got diabetes and I packed in everything after that. I started the Blenheim Palace production in 2019 at one size and ended it at another. I don’t think the costume lady was very pleased!” he says of his fitness regime. “I started doing boxing workouts again and I’m no longer in the diabetic range.”

Paul subsequently left behind Bordon, Hampshire, for a new beginning in Selby. “Covid kicked in hard, and that was a big factor in deciding to return north. It meant I could come back because a lot of auditions are done on Zoom now, so you’re in a position where you don’t have to live in or near to London,” he says.

“I had a look around a lot of areas in Yorkshire and settled on Selby. I’d only been there once before, but I just wanted to be somewhere near York, as I love the place, and Selby is just down the road. I saw the house and that was it!”

Weight loss, house move, and now Paul has become engaged too, to Nicola Filshie. “I decided to marry the girl I’ve known for 26 years, who lives in Glasgow, so I spend a time a lot of time going up there. We’ve worked together a few times, and now we’ll be marrying next October,” he says.

Double trouble act: Robin Simpson and Paul Hawkyard’s comic tour de force as things turn ugly for Cinderella’s stepsisters at York Theatre Royal

Paul contacted Juliet Forster before making the move to Selby. “I said I was moving to Yorkshire and it would be lovely to see her, asking her to keep me in mind if anything came up.” 

Lo and behold, up came the Ugly Stepsister partnership with Simpson in Cinderella. “We are very different,” says Paul. “He’s quietly brilliant and I’m very loud!” 

Making his professional debut in pantomime, he first played Simple Simon in a Pantoni Productions show in his early 20s and has since appeared as Buttons, assorted dames and even the villainous Abanazar out in Dubai.

By comparison, Robin has always played dame. “Maybe a lot of dames see themselves as appealing to the adults, with the comedian turn for the children, but I’ve never thought of it like that. You have to appeal to everyone. I don’t want to alienate children,” he says.

Somehow, this even applies when playing the outwardly unappealing, antagonistic stepsisters Manky and Mardy. Robin and Paul may enter each time to ever more raucous jeering, but they are lovably absurd, boastful villains, mean but funny. “Aren’t we brilliant?” they jest. They are, as it happens!

COVID UPDATE 23/12/2021

NO performances of Cinderella from December 23 for a week after a Covid outbreak among cast members. Provisionally, the production will resume on December 30, with two extra performances being added to the run that ends on January 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

Nigel Slater’s Toast pops up online as animated radio play, Walnut Whips and all

Nigel, meet Nigel: Cookery writer Nigel Slater with Giles Cooper, who played his younger self on stage and will do so again in next month’s radio play and animated film. Picture: Simon Annand

NIGEL Slater’s childhood memoir, Toast, is popping up again, this time online as a radio play and animated film with a recipe card from the cookery writer, from July 1 to 31.

For the full flavour to flood out, to match the interactive, sensory nature of the 2019 stage play, where the smell of food added to the pleasure, “new ways for audiences to feel, hear, smell and taste” Toast will be part of the broadcast experience.

This innovative response to lockdown times is being brought to the air by the Lawrence Batley Theatre, in Huddersfield, “rising to the forefront to make a difference during this cultural shift for a second time in a bid to raise money for the theatre industry when it faces ongoing struggles”.

Already, the West Yorkshire theatre has mounted an online adaptation of The Understudy, Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2005 novel. Starring Stephen Fry, it reached international audiences in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kuwait, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and the United States, as well as in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Working in partnership with The Lowry, Salford, LBT’s Toast will feature the original West End cast, led by Giles Cooper, a close friend of Slater, who will be recording his lines in his London home, where Slater lived when he began writing his award-winning autobiography.

Cooper also played Slater in Toast’s national tour that visited York Theatre Royal last November. Now he reprises the role once more, re-joining, albeit remotely, his London co-stars Lizzie Muncey as Mum, Stephen Ventura as Dad,Marie Lawrence as Joan and Jake Ferretti as Josh, under the direction of Jonnie Riordan again. 

The poster for Nigel Slater’s Toast

Filloux-Bennett’s two-hour adaptation of Slater’s autobiography vividly re-creates his childhood through the tastes and smells he shares with his mother, culminating in the young Nigel’s escape to London. From making the perfect sherry trifle, through the playground politics of sweets, the rigid rules of restaurant dining, and a domestic war over cakes, this tale of love, loss and toast is “A Play About Growing Up. With Food”. 

The cast and creative team involved in Toast are taking part completely in isolation, with the actors’ lines, recorded at home, being brought to life by the sound design team of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin. 

Commenting on the LBT’s upcoming broadcast, Slater says: “Toast has already had a life as a book, a film and a stage production and I am thrilled to see it in its latest format as an animated radio play.

“To bring the play to such a wide audience is a brilliant idea from the Lawrence Batley Theatre and The Lowry and working with so many of the original production team and cast again has been an absolute joy.”

Writer Filloux-Bennett says: “I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to bring Toast back to this new virtual stage. We were completely blown away by the response the play had from audiences across the country, and we’re so excited that people who weren’t able to catch the play before now can, and that for those who enjoyed it on stage we can bring the story – and the Walnut Whips – back again.”

For more information on how to listen to Toast or watch the animated film next month, go to thelbt.org. Tickets cost £10 to £16 at thelbt.org/shows/nigel-slaters-toast-2/, with those booking for the higher price receiving a package of goodies, including a programme, Nigel Slater recipe card and two Walnut Whips, “so you can have a heart-warming and stomach-filling evening from your front room”. 

The LBY website says: “You will receive an email with a link to the play and recipe card three days prior to the date that you have booked to watch the performance.  If you have selected to receive a programme, recipe card and Walnut Whips, then you will receive these through the post prior to your performance date.”

Here is Charles Hutchinson’s review of Toast from last November

Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, November 19 to 23 2019 *****

Giles Cooper in his stage role as Nigel Slater in Toast last year

HERE is the challenge facing director Jonnie Riordan. “Think about how long it takes to actually make a piece of toast, and then how do you do that on stage when you’re trying to keep the audience engaged?” he says.

It brings a new meaning to pop-up theatre in York after the summer Elizabeth version at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, and Riordan and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett have made a wonderful job of adapting cookery writer Nigel Slater’s coming-of-age memoir for the stage.

Like Jonathan Watkins for Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive, on tour at the Theatre Royal only two weeks ago, Riordan is both director and choreographer. However, whereas Watkins’s show took time to find its footing on a somewhat strange-looking set – was it a crater or a cracked cloud egg? – Toast is sure footed, even light on its feet from the start.

Nigel, our narrator, guides us through his story like Slater’s lovely writing leads you through his recipes and epicurean thoughts in his mellifluous books. Played by the delightful Giles Cooper in schoolboy tank top and short trousers, Nigel is nine and already drawn to the one cookery book in the Slaters’ Wolverhampton home: Marguerite Patten’s ground-breaking Cookery In Colour, a full-colour Sixties’ bolt out of the cordon bleu after the grey gravy of before.

From within the cream and brown Sixties’ kitchen of Libby Watson’s design, Cooper’s Nigel likes to orchestrate all the storytelling, stepping in and out of a scene to converse with the audience, but such is the skill of Filloux-Bennett’s writing that the events of his young life have a habit of pulling the rug from under him. At one point, his mother stops him in his tracks and tells him to re-trace his steps to relate the true, darker version of events.

Attention to detail: Giles Cooper’s Nigel Slater seeks culinary perfection in Toast

There is abundant humour, absolutely true to Slater’s own tone in his books, but the darkness has to break through too, given what happened to Slater in his childhood and teenage years.

His love of food is omnipresent, and yes, we see toast popping up in real time and later Nigel making mushrooms on toast with a chef’s flair and precision in one so young. We enjoy the culinary sensations, and when Nigel is regaling us with the delights of sweets – amid his father’s insistence that certain sweets are for boys, others for girls – bags of sweets are passed around the audience. The real Nigel Slater had a bag by his feet as he sat in the dress circle, by the way!

Food is at the heart of Toast, glorious food and not so glorious food in the case of Nigel’s father’s first attempt at making spaghetti bolognaise, mountains of “sick-smelling” Parmesan dust et al. Part of the joy here  is having our own recollections of mishaps around our own kitchen tables.

Through food too, we see the difference between Nigel’s relationship with his Mum (Katy Federman), pretty much tied to the apron strings, such is their bond, and his abusive Dad (Blair Plant, back at his old Theatre Royal stamping ground).

Into the story comes the dreadful Joan (Samantha Hopkins) and assorted characters played by Stefan Edwards, as the first stirrings of Nigel’s sexuality play out.

Brilliant performances, a superb choice of soundtrack from La Mer to Dusty, and a finale as warm and toasty as toast make Toast a five-star treat, both measured and deeply flavoured like a Nigel Slater recipe.

Review copyright of The Press, York